Football

Justin Herbert Is Just Getting Started

Justin Herbert
AP Photo/Justin Edmonds

Justin Herbert took the NFL world by storm last season when he burst onto the scene and put together one of the most statistically impressive seasons for a rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL. Since taking over the job on September 20th, 2020 at the age of 22, Herbert simply has not looked back. In addition to being on pace to break NFL records, he has also injected new life into the Chargers franchise, which is currently tied for 1st place in the AFC West after not having won the division since 2009. Many people expressed concerns for Herbert going into this season, claiming that the dreaded “sophomore slump” was inevitable. Justin Herbert has since quelled any concerns about such a regression, and he looks like he is here to stay for a very long time.

Thrust into Action

After being drafted 6th overall by the Los Angeles Chargers in the 2020 NFL Draft, Justin Herbert looked to be staring down the barrel of a developmental year, which would likely be spent sitting behind a veteran to learn the game (à la Patrick Mahomes). However, following an injury to starting QB Tyrod Taylor, Justin Herbert prepared to make his first NFL start on September 20th, 2020. He proceeded to impress by throwing for over 300 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT in a close loss to divisional rival Kansas City, adding 18 yards and a touchdown on the ground.

Initially, reports circulated that Tyrod Taylor would reclaim the starting QB role once healthy, and these reports were substantiated by the head coach of the Chargers at the time, Anthony Lynn, confirming that this was indeed the plan. Taylor’s return to the helm would never happen, however, as Herbert never looked back from his stellar first outing. He averaged 310 passing yards per game over his next 2 starts, throwing 4 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions over that time. Following Week 4 of the 2020 NFL season and Herbert’s 3rd career start, Anthony Lynn announced that Herbert would be the starting QB for the remainder of the season. It was official: Herbert was there to stay.

Perhaps one day sports fans will look back and talk about Wally Pipp/Lou Gehrig, Drew Bledsoe/Tom Brady, and Tyrod Taylor/Justin Herbert in the same breath. Only time will tell. For now, though, it remains quite obvious that Herbert has no plans to abate his torrid pace as he looks to both pace his peers and chase the legends of the game at the same time.

Record-Setting Rookie Season

Justin Herbert ended his rookie season with 4,336 passing yards, 31 passing touchdowns, and 396 completions on 495 passing attempts. His passing touchdowns and completions both set new rookie records for QB, and he finished just 38 yards short of the record for most passing yards by a rookie quarterback, which is a record currently held by Andrew Luck. Herbert was recognized for his achievements when he was awarded NFL AP Offensive Rookie of the Year.

However, as noted previously, Herbert did not open the season as the starting quarterback for the Chargers. He only played 15 of the 16 possible games in his rookie season, meaning that his pure volume stats were less than they otherwise could have been had he played the full season.

Despite this, Herbert managed to set rookie records in 2 major volume categories. For reference, Andrew Luck played all 16 games during his record-setting rookie year. As an exercise, Herbert’s stats can be extrapolated over the entire 16 games by using his rookie year per game averages. Assuming he maintained the same averages in that one additional game, Herbert would have thrown for 4,625.12 yards and 33.12 touchdowns while completing 422.40 passes on 634.67 attempts.

Such numbers would have been good enough for rookie records in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completions, all by comfortable margins.

Justin Herbert: Pacing His Peers

Logan Bowles/NFL

Justin Herbert was the 6th overall selection of the 2020 NFL Draft, making him the 3rd QB off of the board and 1 of 5 quarterbacks drafted in the first 3 rounds of that draft. Joe Burrow (1st Overall to the Cincinnati Bengals) and Tua Tagovailoa (5th Overall to the Miami Dolphins) were the 2 quarterbacks taken in front of Herbert, while Jordan Love (26th Overall to the Green Bay Packers) and Jalen Hurts (53rd Overall to the Philadelphia Eagles) rounded out the group of QBs drafted in the first 3 rounds.

Of this group of five quarterbacks, four are now the starting QBs for their team. Jordan Love remains behind Aaron Rodgers on the Green Bay depth chart, though if a fitful offseason is any indication, Love’s time to start in Green Bay may be coming sooner rather than later. Even so, Love has been left out of this analysis simply due to a lack of substantial NFL game action. Table 1 below allows for a quick comparison of the to-date NFL stats of the rest of this group.

PlayerGSCompAttComp%Pass YdsPass TDIntY/AAY/ARateAgeW-L
Justin Herbert2155784166.23%6,10745147.307.6098.423.22110-11
Joe Burrow1638757866.96%4,22827127.317.3195.324.3116-9-1
Tua Tagovailoa1223436663.93%2,3491476.416.3187.023.2017-5
Jalen Hurts1019934158.36%2,3991377.146.9184.023.0683-7
Table 1. Comparison of career stats thus far. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Herbert currently leads Burrow, Tua, and Hurts in all major passing categories. He has thrown for the most yards, thrown the most touchdowns, and completed the most passes of this group. In fact, Herbert not only leads this group in passing completions, but he also recently became the fastest player in the Super Bowl era to complete 500 passes, requiring only 19 games to do so.

Impressive Efficiency

With that being said, due to injuries (Burrow and Tagovailoa) and initial depth chart placement (Hurts), Herbert has also played the most games of this group thus far. In an effort to account for this discrepancy, per-game and volume-adjusted statistics have been put in the table below.

PlayerComp %PA/GPY/GRA/GRY/GTD%Int%TD:Int
Justin Herbert66.23%40.05290.813.6214.575.35%1.66%3.21
Joe Burrow66.96%36.13264.253.3811.634.67%2.08%2.25
Tua Tagovailoa63.93%30.50195.753.5811.003.83%1.91%2.00
Jalen Hurts58.36%34.10239.909.9057.203.81%2.05%1.86
Table 2. Volume-Adjusted Passing Stats. Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

As can be seen from Table 2 (immediately above), Herbert still leads the pack in almost every major passing category even when said statistics are adjusted on a per-game basis. He has thrown for the most passing yards per game (though notably on the most pass attempts per game), has the highest TD percentage on the lowest interception percentage, and boasts the highest TD:INT ratio as well. Burrow does barely edge out Herbert in completion percentage, but the difference in percentage is perhaps negligible (0.73%) and may even be in Herbert’s favor when considering that he has attempted almost 4 passes per game more than Burrow over this span.

It is not entirely fair to discount a quarterback’s rushing prowess in the current NFL, so major rushing statistics (both career-to-date and per game) for this group can be referenced in Table 3 below.

PlayerRushesRush YdsRush TDsFumbles Lost
Justin Herbert7630662
Joe Burrow5418634
Tua Tagovailoa4313241
Jalen Hurts9957282
Table 3. Rushing Stats (Career-to-Date), courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

As can be seen from Table 3, the rushing statistics still look fairly favorably on Herbert. While Hurts clearly has an edge in every major rushing category, Herbert has an edge on both Burrow and Tua.

Given his dominance in the passing game combined with his ability to threaten defenses on the ground, it is fair to say that Justin Herbert has gotten off to the strongest start among those in his draft class.

Taking His Place Among the Elite

(Kansas City Chiefs)

When young quarterbacks enter the NFL, they aren’t only looking to surpass those in their own draft class. They are also trying to challenge the “current guard” in the NFL. As such, it makes sense to compare Herbert’s career start to those of the elite QBs drafted in the few years prior to Herbert’s own draft.

For the sake of this analysis, one consistently impactful quarterback from each of the 3 drafts before Herbert’s own class were selected. Patrick Mahomes (10th overall in 2017), Lamar Jackson (32nd overall in 2018), and Kyler Murray (1st overall 2019) are 3 stars selected in the first round of recent drafts. Given his recent progression, Josh Allen (QB, Buffalo Bills) would make for an interesting comparison as well. However, this analysis is primarily focused on the first 21 starts of each quarterback’s career (as that is the number of starts that Herbert has made in total thus far), so preference was given to those who made an immediate impact after taking over the starting role.

Total and volume-adjusted passing and rushing statistics for the first 21 starts of each member of this group can be found below.

PlayerCompAttComp%Pass YdsPass TDsIntAge FinishW-LTD%Int%TD:Int
Justin Herbert55784166.23%6,107451423.22110-115.35%1.66%3.21
Patrick Mahomes51177166.28%6,891601324.01217-47.78%1.69%4.62
Lamar Jackson33752863.83%4,00338922.33918-37.20%1.70%4.22
Kyler Murray47572365.70%5,021281823.0658-12-13.87%2.49%1.56
PlayerRushesRush YdsRush Yds/AttRush TDsFumbles Lost
Justin Herbert763064.0362
Patrick Mahomes793464.3823
Lamar Jackson2781,6595.97115
Kyler Murray1348406.2793
Table 4a. Passing Stats (first 21 starts). Table 4b. Rushing Stats (first 21 starts). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

As can be seen from the tables above, Justin Herbert has immediately inserted himself into the conversation for one of the best young QBs in the game today. Of this group, he is second only to Mahomes in all major volume passing stats besides completions, in which Herbert edges out Mahomes for top rank in the group. Again, Herbert has a slightly lower completion percentage than Mahomes (0.05%), though this negligible difference may actually grant the edge to Herbert given the considerable difference in attempts per game.

Justin Herbert: A Further Statistical Comparison

When discussing a player’s success, fans never want to limit themselves to comparisons to other rookies or relatively young players. Inevitably, the names of legends, both made and in-the-making, get thrown around. The table below allows for the comparison of Justin Herbert’s first 21 career starts to those of various legendary quarterbacks.

PlayerCompAttComp%Pass YdsPass TDIntAge FinishW-LTD%Int%TD:Int
Justin Herbert55784166.23%6,107451423.22110-115.35%1.66%3.21
Tom Brady44469264.16%4,676332125.08514-74.77%3.03%1.57
Peyton Manning43275157.52%5,134373523.2076-154.93%4.66%1.06
Aaron Rodgers44770063.86%5,494361525.3209-125.14%2.14%2.40
Patrick Mahomes51177166.28%6,891601324.01217-47.78%1.69%4.62
Kurt Warner44867566.37%6,339552029.10118-38.15%2.96%2.75
Matthew Stafford44177257.12%4,981382523.2659-124.92%3.24%1.52
Andrew Luck43678355.68%5,518302024.02415-63.83%2.55%1.50
PlayerRushesRush YdsRush Yds/AttRush TDsFumbles Lost
Justin Herbert763064.0362
Tom Brady47751.6003
Peyton Manning27602.2211
Aaron Rodgers763204.2155
Patrick Mahomes793464.3823
Kurt Warner321063.3115
Matthew Stafford311494.8132
Andrew Luck823904.7676
Table 5a. Passing Stats (first 21 career starts). Table 5b. Rushing Stats (first 21 career starts). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Justin Herbert Versus the Historical Greats

Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers were included in the above comparison for their prolific careers and constant presence in any conversation discussing a player’s place among the greatest quarterbacks to ever play.

Of this group (Herbert, Brady, Manning, and Rodgers), Herbert leads in every major statistical category, both by pure volume and volume-adjusted statistics. In his first 21 games, Herbert passed for more yards, threw more touchdowns, completed more passes, and threw fewer interceptions than Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Aaron Rodgers did in their first 21 career starts. Additionally, Herbert did this on the highest completion percentage, highest touchdown percentage, lowest interception percentage, and highest touchdown to interception ratio of this group over that same span of games.

Justin Herbert Versus the Fast-Starters

The other quarterbacks in Table 5a and Table 5b above were included due to well-known impressive starts to their careers. Patrick Mahomes, who was included again for ease of reference, recently made headlines for reaching 10,000 passing yards in the fewest number of games in NFL history.

Aside from Mahomes, the next 3 QBs on this list (Warner, Stafford, and Luck) were also included for comparison. Of this group, Herbert is edged out by both Mahomes and Warner in almost every major passing category. They both threw for more yard and touchdowns on higher completion percentages than Herbert did over the span of their first 21 career starts. However, Herbert was notably safer with the ball than Warner, boasting a lower interception percentage and higher touchdown to interception ratio than Warner over their first 21 career starts. Additionally, Herbert added 3 times as many rushing yards and 5 more rushing touchdowns than Warner while also losing 3 less fumbles over that span.

Young Gun

It is worth noting the age of everyone in the above group. At the time of his 21st NFL start, Justin Herbert was 23 years and 221 days old. At 24 years and 12 days old, Mahomes was slightly older at the time of his 21st NFL regular season start. The closest in age  to Herbert of this group was Stafford, who was 23 years and 265 days old at the time of his 21st regular season start. Andrew Luck was even older than Mahomes, as he was 24 years and 24 days old at the time of his 21st career start.

Most notably, Kurt Warner was a surprising 29 years and 101 days old at the time of his 21st career start. Of all quarterbacks analyzed in this article, this makes Warner the oldest at the time of his 21st career start by a whole 4 years and 16 days, perhaps explaining why he did not achieve the pure volume stats for his career that many of the others who have been mentioned thus far did.

Despite putting up lower volume stats than Kurt Warner over his first 21 career starts, Justin Herbert is still on pace to reach 10,000 passing yards in fewer games than Warner (36). If Herbert maintains his current career averages, he would reach 10,000 passing yards in 34.387 games, putting him behind Patrick Mahomes (34) for second fewest number of games required to reach that mark in NFL history. However, if Herbert continues to improve at his current pace, it is not unreasonable to think that he may very well reach that mark sooner and steal the title from Mahomes.

Records in Sight

When all is said and done, many turn to the record books to support claims of greatness or to try to undermine certain legacies. So, with that in mind, what are Herbert’s chances at getting his name in these record books?

Below are 3 tables comparing Herbert’s current pace to 3 perhaps attainable records: Passing Yards, Passing Touchdowns, and Completions. All stats are career stats for the regular season only.

Passing Yards

Current RankPlayerPass YdsGamesPass Y/G
1Tom Brady81,268307264.7
5Philip Rivers63,440244260.0
9Eli Manning57,023236241.6
10Aaron Rodgers52,681203259.5
>250Justin Herbert6,10721290.8
PlayerGames (Seasons) to Reach #1Games (Seasons) to Reach #5Games (Seasons) to Reach #10Games (Seasons) to Reach 90,000 Passing Yds
Justin Herbert258.46 (15.20)197.16 (11.60)160.16 (9.42)288.49 (16.97)
Table 6a. Current Passing Yards Leaders with Ranks (Career, Regular Season). Table 6b. Requirements for Justin Herbert to reach certain positions on the all-time passing yards list (Career, Regular Season). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

As can be seen from the table above, becoming the all-time leader in passing yards is a tall task. The current career leader, Tom Brady, is somehow not only playing at the age of 44, but he is continuing to play at an elite level at that age. When all is said and done, the passing yards record may be all but unreachable for a long time. With that being said, the recent addition of a 17th game to the NFL season could go a long way towards helping someone eventually reach whatever number Brady eventually ends on.

To match the current holder of 10th place on the all-time passing yards list (Aaron Rodgers), Herbert would have to maintain his current pace of 290.8 yards/game for 160.16 games, which equates to 9.42 full (17-game) seasons. However, considering that Rodgers needs less than 17 games at 259.5 y/g to pass 9th place (Eli Manning), it seems likely that Herbert would have to match Manning to crack the Top 10. To do so, Herbert would have to throw for 290.8 y/g for 175.09 games, or 10.30 seasons. In such a scenario, Herbert would be roughly 34 to 35 years of age upon reaching this milestone.

While injuries are incredibly unpredictable, it seems quite possible that Herbert could hit this mark if he remains healthy, especially if he continues to improve his game as he gets older.

To make the top 5 all-time passing yards list, Herbert would have to match Philip Rivers’ career totals. Accomplishing this feat would require Herbert to throw for 290.8 y/g for 197.16 games (11.60 seasons).

In order to match Brady’s current stats at #1 all-time, Herbert would have to maintain this pace for 258.46 games, or 15.20 seasons.

Becoming the first ever player to throw for 90,000 passing yards (though Brady may have reached this mark by the time he retires) would require Herbert to throw for 290.8 y/g for 288.49 games (16.97 seasons).

Passing Touchdowns

Current RankPlayerPassing TDsGamesTD/G
1Tom Brady5983071.95
4Brett Favre5083021.68
5Aaron Rodgers4242032.09
9Eli Manning3662361.55
10Matt Ryan3572101.70
T232Justin Herbert45212.14
PlayerGames (Seasons) to Reach #1Games (Seasons) to Reach #5Games (Seasons) to Reach #10
Justin Herbert258.41 (15.20)177.10 (10.42)145.79 (8.58)
Table 7a. Current Passing Touchdowns Leaders with Ranks (Career, Regular Season). Table 7b. Requirements for Justin Herbert to reach certain positions on the all-time passing touchdowns list (Career, Regular Season). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

For Herbert to reach top 10 all-time in passing touchdowns, he would have to match Matt Ryan’s career total. However, given the immense likelihood that Ryan passes #9 soon (he only needs to match his career touchdowns per game average for 5.29 games to match Eli Manning), Herbert will more than likely have to match Eli Manning’s career totals to break into the top 10. To do so, Herbert would have to continue to average 2.14 TD/game for 150 games (8.82 seasons).

Aaron Rodgers is currently 5th all-time passing touchdowns, sitting 84 touchdowns behind Brett Favre, who holds 4th place. For Aaron Rodgers to pass Favre, he would need to continue to average 2.09 TD/gm for 40.19 games (2.36 seasons). Given rumors of retirement as recently as this past offseason, this is far from guaranteed. With that being said, the moving bar set by an active QB makes calculations a bit trickier, so using Favre as a milestone for the top 5 seems to make more sense for now. For Herbert to match Favre and guarantee his place on the top 5 all-time passing touchdowns list, he would have to continue his current TD/game pace for 216.36 games (12.73 seasons).

Once again, first place in all-time passing touchdowns, Tom Brady, is still active, which makes these calculations a little bit tricky. To match Brady’s current career regular season passing touchdown mark of 598, Herbert would have to continue his current career average for 258.41 games, which is equivalent to 15.20 seasons.

Passing Completions

Current RankPlayerCompletionsGamesComp/G
1Drew Brees7,14228724.89
2Tom Brady6,96130722.67
5Philip Rivers5,27724421.63
9Eli Manning4,89523620.74
10Aaron Rodgers4,40920321.72
>250Justin Herbert5572126.52
PlayerGames (Seasons) to Reach #1Games (Seasons) to Reach #5Games (Seasons) to Reach #10
Justin Herbert248.30 (14.61)177.98 (10.47)145.25 (8.54)
Table 8a. Current Passing Completions Leaders with Ranks (Career, Regular Season). Table 8b. Requirements for Justin Herbert to reach certain positions on the all-time passing completions list (Career, Regular Season). Stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.

Again, assuming Rodgers plays the 22.38 games required to pass Eli Manning for regular season completions, Herbert will have to match Manning to make the Top 10. To do so, he will have to continue completing 26.52 passes per game for 163.57 games (9.62 seasons).

To match Philip Rivers and break into the top 5 all-time completions list, Herbert will have to maintain his current average for 177.98 games (10.47 seasons).

Passing Drew Brees for the top spot in all-time regular season completions will require Herbert to complete 26.52 passes per game for 248.30 games (14.61 seasons). Again, this bar may be moved in the coming years, as Brady is only 7.98 games away from breaking the record if he maintains his current career average.

(AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Rewriting the Record Books

Clearly, Herbert has history within his reach. If he played the equivalent of 15.20 full seasons (at the new 17 games per season) at his current pace, he would become the all-time leader in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and completions at their current marks. While Brady will likely continue to increase his lead in these categories in the coming seasons, the fact that they are currently in reach for Herbert is impressive. Simply by maintaining his current career averages, he could accomplish these feats before the age of 40.

All of the quarterbacks, save for 1, discussed in Table 5a (see above) that have played at least 86 games saw increases in their touchdown to interceptions ratios and decreases in their interception percentages when comparing their first 21 starts to their career averages. Kurt Warner is the only exception to this trend, perhaps due to his previously noted older starting age compared to the other candidates. Additionally, all of these quarterbacks besides Warner and Stafford saw an increase in their touchdown percentages when comparing their first 21 career starts to their total career averages. These trends seem to suggest that Herbert will only improve with time, making it all the more likely that he is able to reach some, if not all, of these records if he is able to remain healthy.

The Future is in Good Hands

The future of the NFL is in good hands with the current group of young quarterbacks. As one of those quarterbacks, Justin Herbert is looking to make a name for himself both in the media and in the record books. If he continues to improve his game, then conversations regarding all-time great quarterbacks may be changed forever.

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. benparker639

    October 23, 2021 at 10:46 PM

    LOVE the Wally Pip reference! 😅 Good article, incredible depth.

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